With the 2019 Rugby World Cup gearing up to take place in Japan, an interesting dialectic has been taking place. Players, and Rugby fans, are being asked to respect the Japanese culture by covering their tattoos, so certain questions have been raised.
Is self expression more important than respecting another person's culture? Will the Rugby World Cup inspire a further conversation within Japan about their own tattoo culture, history, and community? How can one culture celebrate the symbolism and ritualistic aspect of their tattoos, while another culture denies it? How can we develop tolerance and compassion for another cultures customs and beliefs?
It’s these questions, and more, that are being brought up...but it seems the teams are being ultra professional, and respectful. “Tournament organiser, Alan Gilpin, was keen to stress that players, especially those in the Pacific Islands and New Zealand, where half-sleeve tattoos designate hierarchy and warrior status, and date back 2000 years, were respectful of the local customs...he says, ‘When we raised it with the teams a year or so ago, we were probably expecting a frustrated reaction, but there hasn’t been at all..they want to respect the Japanese culture.”
It’s actually a smart stance to take. The games will focus on the sport, rather than the tattoos, and the respectful position the players are taking may actually prove that people with tattoos aren’t all gangsters, criminals, or rebels.
The interesting thing is that just as the Polynesian’s, and similar indigenous people, view their tattoos as an integral part of their culture, Japanese tattooing is just as intrinsic to Japanese culture...it’s just that there is a severe denial of it. Irezumi is possibly one of the most famous aspects of Japan, right up there with Hello Kitty. Their style of tattooing is so much at the heart of global tattoo culture itself, that it seems absolutely ridiculous to continually drag out yakuza’s as the reason to why Japanese tattooing continues to be illegal. The excuse is tired. This is no longer about associations with a criminal underground; it’s people gripping tightly to their preconceived notions and prejudices about what tattoos are, what tattoos mean, and who gets them.
The beauty of Irezumi is undeniable; it’s power to influence and inspire tattoo artists and tattoo collectors is proven time and time again. The art form is one that should be protected, heralded, and respected...and it’s disheartening that the 35-40,000 yakuza still at work within the country are stronger than the millions of tattoo lovers around the world who adore Japanese tattooing.
But we’re not just talking about the yakuza who are alive and kicking. We’re also talking about Japanese tattoo history: hundreds of years of using tattooing as a means to mark criminals, or to quell important religious rituals during the early 1800’s. But, personally, I think if we move beyond this obsession with tattoos as a symbol of yakuza, if we stop mentioning this every single time Japanese tattooing is brought up, we can move beyond it. Because, after all, that’s what’s happening in the West.
Ten years ago in the U.S. you couldn’t have visible tattoos and expect to have a regular job...today, my barista has a giant rose tattoo on her hand. My banker has a Traditional bodysuit peeking up over his collared shirt. Wall Street types are showing off their newly inked biceps in offices around the country. The preconceptions of tattoo culture are changing...and if it’s changed here, hopefully it’s only a matter of time before mass society in Japan follows suit. Irezumi is, after all, one of the most revered tattoo styles of all time. It’s just as classic as Traditional. Just as revered as Polynesian tribal. It’s deeply important, intrinsic, to the history and future of the culture and community that we adore so much...and it’s truly time that the Japanese mainstream start celebrating that.
And with the Rugby World Cup, new attitudes and an age of enlightenment may be sparked, as far as tattoos are concerned, within Japan. Seiji Hori, a Beppu hotel association official stated, “There are many Japanese people enjoying tattoos as well, and we would like to avoid treating only foreigners differently. We hope we can enhance our tolerance and understanding on the occasion of the Rugby World Cup.” Another Itami official told Kyodo, “With the Olympics coming up as well, we feel the need to discuss the issue of tattoos.” It seems everyone is doing their part to uphold a mentality of tolerance and compassion.
Teams playing at the Rugby World Cup will be regarding Japanese cultural needs with serious dignity. “Samoa coach Steve Jackson is so determined to avoid the off-field issues that have previously plagued the Pacific islanders that he called in Japanese cultural experts to advise his players when to cover up their tattoos during the World Cup...He has also concentrated on ensuring his players have an appreciation of Japanese culture to avoid any misunderstandings while they are in the host nation.”
New Zealand All Blacks player Sonny Bill Williams mirrored these sentiments, shrugging off the controversy, and saying “...the first day we were here we went to a gym where we all had to cover up so there were a few long sleeve tights and calf sleeves going around. But I think that will just be the go, that will be the norm, for the players that are lucky enough to come over here and we have got to respect the values that the Japanese people have. It’s just how it is.”